Think of your favorite artists. Think of your favorite songs. Think of your favorite beats. Now imagine a world where almost none of those exist. You'd be imagining a world without Isao Tomita.
From a-ha’s “Take On Me” to Chance’s new “No Problem” and just about every song in between, the synthesizer is one of the most practical and utilized tools used by any artist of any genre. While it's standard now, back in the early '70s it was Tomita, who recently passed away at the age of 84, who was at the forefront of that technology and even inspired two of the greatest artists of our time.
He's generally regarded as a visionary for his 1970s electronic music albums. But Tomita’s influence extends beyond what we traditionally think of as “electronic” music. Stevie Wonder named Tomita as one of the artists he respected the most, and in a 1984 interview with the New York Times, credited Tomita for turning him on to Romantic composers like Mussorgsky and Debussy. Michael Jackson famously visited Tomita at his home studio during his 1987 tour of Japan, apparently to ask him about how he created such realistic flute sounds. – Los Angeles Times
Before I heard of his passing I didn't know the name, but the more I researched and the more I listened, the more I'm left in awe. Like the wheel to modern transportation, the synth has become such a fundamental part of music it's easy to forget there was a time when it didn't exist. To have the knowledge, the talent and the imagination to create a new instrument and a brand new sound from scratch is almost unfathomable. It's what made his high experimental album, Snowflakes Are Dancing, such a groundbreaking project and inspired the likes of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. Using an instrument and a style nobody had ever heard before, Tomita's 1974 album is a re-imagining the work of the French, turn-of-the-century composer Claude DeBussy. Even now it sounds highly experimental.
While I'm just now getting to know Snowflakes Are Dancing and just beginning to appreciate Tomita's influence, I'm already finding ways his music has permeated hip-hop. More than indirectly influencing any rapper or producer who ever used a synth, Tomita has some very real connections. Surprise, surprise, most of it comes through samples. Tomita's “Clair De Lune” was sampled on “Climax (Girl Shit)” by Slum Village, “Bus Stop” from Flying Lotus (who often grabs Tomita samples), and “Get Your Grind On,” off of Biggie's posthumous album Duets (The Final Chapter).
“Aranjuez” was sampled by the late, great J. Dilla on the aptly-titled “Tomita” – like Flying Lotus, Dilla often drew form Tomita's work – and on Guilty Simpson's “Run” featuring Black Milk and Sean Price. “Snowflakes are Dancing” (featured above) was sampled by Kanye on “Blood On The Leaves,” used for “Mars vs. Venus” by Usher, and on Busta Rhymes' “If You Don't Know Now You Know.” Shall I continue?
Earl Sweatshirt's “Uncle Al” hosts a flip of a folk tale scored by Tomita, “Hop-O'-My-Thumb,” Anderson. Paak's “The Season/Carry Me,” produced by 9th Wonder, samples “Sloveig's Song,” and Tomita's “Passepied” was used on efforts from Reflection Eternal and The Dungeon Family.
So while the name Isao Tomita may be new to you, I'm sure the names and work of Flying Lotus, Hi-Tek, 9th Wonder, J-Dilla, and Kanye are not. Seeing those names so closely linked with Tomita, really puts into perspective how incredibly original and masterfully crafted his work is. And again, that's not even considering the far more monumental accomplishment of, you know, inventing the synth.
Isao Tomita's passing is all the more tragic considering he had plans to create more music, but so long as music is being created, so long as hip-hop continues to sample, he will live on forever while resting in peace.
Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth. His favorite album is College Dropout but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth. Image via Instagram.